Thursday, June 30, 2011

Breach of trust

Goochland was stunned in early February be revelations that county treasurer Brenda Grubbs reportedly confessed to embezzling county money. Initially, the amount Grubbs was believed to have taken from county coffers for her own as yet unspecified use was $135,000.

While many people might have characterized Grubbs as lacking in sophisticated financial skills, her honesty was never in question. Indeed, before the February disclosures, expectations of irregularities in the treasurer’s office would have been improper accounting, but not missing money.

Boy, were we fooled.

Grubbs seems to have been quite arrogant about her powers as a constitutional officer. After her arrest she resisted resigning until the Virginia Attorney General began removal procedures concurrent with circulation of a petition among the citizenry to get her out of office.
Interim treasurer Pamela Cooke Johnson leaped headfirst into the task in late April and is tirelessly working to straighten out the mess. She is running for the office in November as is Tanya Hogue.

In the fallout following Grubbs’ arrest, we learned that county administration and the supervisors had been trying without success to deal with Grubbs’ arrogance and incompetence in a low key manner for years. They were trying to keep this quiet perhaps to avoid yet another scandal. Once again, the majority of the supervisors whistled past the graveyard until it blew up in their faces.

Following grand jury deliberations and an ongoing investigation of the Goochland Treasurer’s office Grubbs was indicted on 18 counts of embezzlement for an amount greater than $200; one count of attempted embezzlement of an amount greater than $200 and one count of unlawful financial transaction for an amount greater than $200. All of these are felonies that carry jail time.

A report recently issued by the Auditor of Public Accounts for the Commonwealth of Virginia (attached to notification email) indicates that $229,000 is missing. The report also states that the exact amount taken may never be accurately determined. In short, the books were a mess.

While the $229,000 or whatever the final amount stolen turns out to be, will probably be covered by a state treasurer’s bond, the cost of countless hours of extra work on the part of county staff; the Sheriff’s Office and State Police investigators may never be tabulated and will not be recovered.

Grubbs will be back in Goochland Circuit Court for arraignment on July 26.
Please read the report. Once again it gives chapter and verse about the dreadful dysfunction of county fiscal matters under the previous regime. Note the comments about Grubbs’ handling of utilities payments.

She also permitted vendors access to county accounts, which, at the very least resulted in the county making short term interest free loans to these entities, which is neither a prudent use of public money or a proper function of county government.

Given Grubbs’ protestations that she warned the supervisors about the failure of the utilities department to properly deposit checks, details in the report show that she ran the county treasury with a similar disregard for orderly process and segregation of duties. This created fertile ground for embezzlement.

Board chair William Quarles, Jr. District 2 regularly glosses over the incident and characterizes it as a failure to use best practices. While that is partly true, the matter of Grubbs’ alleged crimes is far more serious.

The county paid its former auditors handsomely for annual fiscal review of all departments and they never caught any of these problems. After the county retained KPMG to perform a certified annual financial report (CAFR) for 2009 many of these problems were discovered. Grubbs ignored recommendations to change and improve the function of her office.

In this election year the supervisors, especially long term office holders like Andrew Pryor, District 1, must not sweep this latest mess under the rug. Grubbs must be held fully accountable for her deeds. “Thou shalt not steal” is a basic tenet of our society. Stealing public funds and betraying the trust of the electorate, while not a crime, is certainly a transgression.

Grubbs’ alleged actions were not mistakes, they were crimes. They were also a personal tragedy for Grubbs and a public tragedy for Goochland.
Grubbs will face the consequences of the crimes with which she is charged if found guilty. All of the details must be made public if the board of supervisors has a prayer of regaining public trust.

Election year shenanigans are already under way to ensure that the long term supervisors, or their chosen successors, retain power to keep whatever they’re hiding behind the curtain.

What might have happened had Grubbs’ alleged embezzlement not come to light before the election? She ran unopposed in 2007 even though difficulties with the treasurer’s office were already evident. Had the supervisors been more open about the problems, another candidate might have come forward. We’ll never know. While Quarles seems to natter on about government “transparency” we seem to be moving back to the bad old days when that term was code for “it’s none of your business.”

County Administrator Rebecca Dickson and County Attorney Norman Sales did a great job of facing this crisis head on and moving through remedial actions. Let’s hope this is the last mess the county must address.
Voters can make necessary changes to improve the county, but will they?

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